Monday, June 13, 2016

Xin Ren Dan Cong from Cindy Chen compared to Wu Mei Indonesian oolong

I compared the Wu Mei oolong from Toba Wangi, in Indonesia, to a Dan Cong flavor profile in this blog post, and followed up with a more recent tasting comparison with an actual Dan Cong (of course a type of Chinese oolong).   This tea is from Cindy Chen, my favorite Wuyishan Yancha oolong maker, but since she has family in Chaozhou, and also helps make that other tea, I bought some from her a few months back.  I'm not as far into exploring Dan Congs as some other tea types but from what I have tasted the teas deserve their place as one of the classic oolong types, and I really did like this one.

Before getting into those teas I might mention that you can now buy the Toba Wangi teas from What-Cha, per my judgment a great value for the pricing I just saw, so that tea might not be around long.  I just wrote some notes on the Gold Needle black version so I'll get around to writing about it soon enough as well.

that's it in the basket!  or leaves in that region, at least (and Cindy)

In discussion Cindy described that oolong as follows:

[The tea plant type] is named juduozai(锯朵仔), the aroma of that is xin ren xiang (xinren means nut, xiang means aroma), dancong the original meaning is single bushes.

More on naming conventions follows in a later section here.  In other references this type is referred to as "almond," and Cindy also agreed that is her understanding of the translation.  The tea didn't have so much almond aspect, it seemed to me, but I'll get back to that too.  Cindy has been posting interesting pictures of tea processing on her Facebook page lately, and posting some videos of the same on YouTube (probably more from Wuyishan, but most basic steps would look similar).

Juduozai / Xin Ren Xiang Dan Cong, from Cindy

I tried her Dan Cong alone, then later tried both teas together in comparison (hers and the Indonesian oolong). They seemed quite similar related to some aspects and flavor profile, especially related to one distinctive floral flavor element.  The astringency is much different, with mild astringency common to Dan Cong types not showing up in the Wu Mei.

That element would be familiar to many, but to give a description it's nothing like the bite that comes across similar to bitterness in a lot of black teas (although it's really a feel and not a taste, so not actually  bitterness).  It's more like the slight crisp feel that comes with fruit that isn't completely ripe, nothing intense, and not tied to a body / structure of a tea as much as can come across in black teas, more a background element.  Some could see it as very positive, nicely offsetting the aromatic and sweet character, and when the balance is right it can be complimentary.

Both are very aromatic and sweet, and flavor aspects in general in the range of floral, but also with a bit of fruit character.  Dan Cong are known for coming in distinct flavor styles, so for these an implication might be that they should taste like just one thing (in this case, almond, to some extent).  In contrast other teas can be seen as better for expressing a range of flavor,  or at least one runs across such impressions in review or marketing descriptions of teas that read as lists (although vendors typically tend to err on the side of not saying much).  Both teas share one common and predominant taste, which may or may not relate to honey orchid, although that seems likely, at least a close similarity.

The Dan Cong was obviously a very nice tea, bright and sweet, aromatic, with a nice feel and general effect.  The flavors came across as quite clean, mostly that sweet floral element and also fruit, like a ripe sweet plum.  Maybe it tasted a little like almonds.  My impression of that Indonesian tea wasn't so different, but I was surprised in the number of differences when comparing the two.

Wu Mei oolong from Toba Wangi

The Wu Mei had a different roast effect that was hardly noticeable when tasted at different times, but on direct comparison something was quite different (just not easy to pin down how, since the oxidation and level of roast didn't seem so different).   I hadn't noticed it before but traces of character of green tea came across in the Wu Mei, a faint hint of vegetal character and slight earthiness, maybe towards the range of wood, and the flavors weren't quite as clean.  It absolutely doesn't come across as muddled when you drink it alone, maybe more the opposite, it's rather that minor differences stand out in side by side tasting.

I was really comparing two different versions of the Wu Mei, when I tasted both teas together brewed Gongfu style (with a high proportion of tea to water, very short infusions, etc.), and prepared using a hybrid Western / Gongfu style the week before.  Made that other way I had used longer brewing times, but still limited, maybe in the two minute range, and generally prepared stronger than in the direct comparison Gongfu-prepared version.

I did brew both a little stronger on one infusion during that comparison to see how that changed the aspects.  The Dan Cong was taken over by that astringency, so although rich and positive flavors were still there it didn't work as well.  In contrast the feel and effect of the Wu Mei is soft and full, sort of juicy, but with no bite, so when brewed stronger even more sweetness came out, not countered by additional astringency.

So oddly the two teas both worked out best at different brewed strengths.  Brewed lightly, which would be standard for a lot of people, especially related to the Dan Cong style, the refinement and intensity of the Dan Cong really stood out, but what some could interpret as negative aspects came across in the Wu Mei.  Brewed stronger the astringency started to impact the general effect of the Dan Cong,  and  positive aspects of the Wu Mei really started to crowd out anything remotely negative, with sweetness and floral notes coming to the fore.  Without any astringency to offset them the Wu Mei picked up even more flavor intensity and sweetness.

Both are awesome teas, just different.  The Dan Cong seemed a little more refined, in comparison, but for someone that liked their tea brewed stronger the Wu Mei could work better.  I didn't notice lots of flavor transition in either to focus on as a positive aspect, or something to be concerned about missing out on, but comparison tasting adds that much more to keep track of, and I'll probably get around to noticing more about that later.

I tried Cindy's version again, this time specifically trying to identify how much it did or didn't taste like almonds, since I wasn't really "getting" that aspect.  I decided to use a hybrid brewing style of more water to tea and substantially longer than the 10 to 15 seconds typical for Gongfu brewing range, which ended up changing the flavor profile a lot.  Part of the idea behind that was to see how it compared with the Wu Mei prepared this other way.  

Of course a trace flavor element seemed to resemble nuts, which could have been possible with lots of teas if someone is looking for that.  It was more notable that the different brewing style shifted the mild astringency bite to more of a tartness, from a light feel aspect to coming across more as a flavor element.  Strange.  It still seemed predominantly floral to me, just better brewed the other way, using what I understand as the standard Dan Cong approach, short infusions with off-boiling-point temperature water (although I have ran across variations related to the water temperature part).

I certainly wouldn't recommend cold brewing the Dan Cong (it seems insulting to the tea to even bring that up), but it does work really well to use that approach to get an extra infusion or two after normal brewing.  Both of these teas are difficult to completely "brew out," since they both just keep going, and cold brewing leaves that have already been steeped a number of times results in a full flavored and sweet version with almost no astringency.  Both teas are great cold; the bright, sweet freshness really stands out.  It would seem odd to me to only brew them that way, straight to cold brewing, but it should really work.

Research section:

a commercial version I reviewed last year

I've written about Dan Cong style teas before (including a post with some background here), with lots of secondary references about the type.  I'll mention a couple to save some clicking around; this one by Hojo tea really stands out, and this Tea Obsession post by Imen on Dan Cong naming is as good as such references seem to get.  Anyone really obsessed with this tea type should give special attention to that last blog, since I've heard that author referred to as the queen of Dan Cong.  She still sells tea, with her shop linked to that blog (Tea Habitat), she's just out of the blog writing habit.

I'll mention a few more references since they tie to points I've already brought up here.

Related to the almond taste, this reference by "the Chinese Tea Company" describes their version as:

notes of toasted nuts and ripe tropical fruits like mango and peach are revealed over many infusions and without bringing too much sweetness.

Too much sweetness?  How would that work?  Interesting they describe the tea as much more fruity than floral.  The tea picture looks a lot more like a Wuyi Yancha, very dark tea, not twisted as tightly as Dan Cong often seem to be.  One JK Tea Shop version looks like one would expect of Dan Cong, described as:

full, rich, deep natural almond aroma & taste, with light honey mixed with strong almond taste in the mouth; complex mouth feeling after sipping the tea liquid and deep throat feeling. 

So no word on fruit or floral for that version, just nuts and honey, like a granola bar; sounds ok.  I'm not saying those teas don't taste or smell a lot like almonds, but it occurs to me that anyone selling an "almond aroma" Dan Cong would be inclined to emphasize that it tastes like almonds.

A Canton Tea Xin Ren Dan Cong description by Geoffrey Norman, one of my favorite tea bloggers, author of Steep Stories, describes one particular version as follows:

This was what I thought of when the word “Dan Cong” came to mind. The flavor was tart, nutty, sweet, and with just a smidge of butter on the fringe.

That article talks about background and a few different teas so it's worth a read if the type is of interest.  I'm not sure some point related to identifying consistency across the specific Xin Ren Xiang type comes across in these descriptions, but they all sound nice, and different, at least per the descriptions.

Lately I've been watching some China Life YouTube videos (a vendor, with videos also referring to Don Mei teas), and two really interesting versions related to Dan Congs.  This post, Understanding Dancong, provides an introduction to the type, explaining what the literal "single bush" meaning Cindy mentioned is all about, with lots of video of the plants growing, being harvested, and of processing.  If you only watch one video introduction to this oolong type you could do a lot worse.

This video by Don on Tasting Four Dancongs was interesting for using a blind tasting format to review four different individual Dang Cong types.  It's not set up to compare and contrast those types since the premise of the clip is a blind-tasting review, with them trying to pick out which is which, but it makes for an interesting video, and includes lots of commentary.

I'm short on there being a central point or narrative theme to all this, aside from those being interesting references about the general type.


  1. almond flavor isn't really almond-like. It's basically a kind of near-vanilla taste, the sort of baked sweet dessert that'd have almond and vanilla flavoring, or perhaps almond milk. It's not a particularly a nutty flavor.

    1. so the idea is that "almond taste / scent" in the name (the literal translation) refers to a predominant taste that isn't identical to almond? of course no tea is going to taste exactly like roasted nuts, so any description would always be a bit qualified, but if I'm understanding you right it's not supposed to be all that close. even then, this is about one single flavor aspect that is characteristic, and there would be others, right? I think it would be helpful to try a few other examples, maybe even one that somehow serves as an exemplar, as much as that happens within variance within a type, and consistency itself also seems to vary by tea types.

    2. You do have to pay for good examples of teas people know can have almond flavor, because that's a very agreeable and popular flavor in tea. Sweet and mild nutmeat flavor in puerh is very addictive. There's nut flavor in Jingmai area and further north that is more aggressively savory. I've had a xinren dancong before, and it was only mildly of that sort of almond flavor, being mostly fairly floral. It's really puerhs that have almond flavor. For instance, *aged* LBZ tends to have insanely delicious sweet nutmeat notes ranging from almond to black walnuts.

      Chinese flavor notes are very tricky...

      Orchid flavor. This can refer to the aroma of certain orchids, but very few puerhs are actually like that. Jingmai and some other Lancang teas are generally the closest to orchid, which is a dry and cloth-like floral, like how lavender is more austere than roses. Many other Lancangs and Wuliang mountain teas are said to be orchid, but it's just a sort of high pitched vegetal/spicy note. People also refer to high quality Menghai teas as having orchid notes, but that makes as much sense as the Wuliang teas do. Menghai florals are very "foresty"...

      However, orchid flavor also tends to refer to the aroma and taste of antique furniture, or grandma's old things. When people refer to an aged 7532 as having orchid flavor, they mean that, and not like how a good Jingmai is.

      Camphor tends to mean three things, tho' Chinese do separate green and brown camphor. In general, think flavors that give depth. The first meaning is the sort of camphor that's of old basement, warehousing, pleasant deep funk. This is the most common sort of claim and the most worthy of dismissal, as you can find that anywhere. The second meaning is basically the actual taste and feeling of camphor in the tea, and especially in the aftertaste. In high quality menghai tea, you get a aromatic floral aftertaste in the mouth that many refer to as camphor. The last meaning is basically the camphor that comes of age. This one is pretty hard to describe. I think of it as candied or glossy wood, and this is something you find *easily* in puerhs over thirty years old that has been well stored. Especially on the drier end.

      Lotus tends to refer to the floral note that accompanies very creamy tasting shu like GNWL. Basically, if you carefully taste the cream in these teas, you'll find a floral finish to it, and that's the floral note that marketers emphasize.

      there are a variety of shu classic flavors, like jujube and ginseng, that I'm not quite sure of.

      In dancong...

      Honey dancong are basically a very deep honey with strong litchee notes...

      Ginger flower is basically a complementary floral and sandalwood character...Basically the sandalwood aspect is what's valued here.

      Most of the other standard aroma aren't *that* distinct from one another, though more special teas get special names.