Monday, September 7, 2009

Clearing Up a Common Mistake: What Dan Cong Really Means

A customer came into the teahouse yesterday with a common misconception. He had been to another tea shop where he was told that Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) dan cong tea came from a single tree or single grove of trees. Actually, while dan cong (单丛) literally means "single bush," it doesn't refer to how the tea was picked. It's a botanical term relating to the morphology of the tea bush. While most tea bushes emerge from the ground in a cluster of branches, the uncommon dan cong variety emerges as a single trunk that branches off higher up the stem.

Unfortunately, tea sellers who have never visited tea farms and don't know tea all the way from the farm to the cup have misinterpreted the literal meaning of the Chinese characters and spread misinformation about dan cong tea. These inaccuracies have quickly propagated via the internet. If you've ever been to a tea farm or seen tea bushes out in the wild, you know that with a typical ratio of 8-10 kilos of fresh tea leaves required to make a kilo of tea, there's no way a single bush could generate a marketable quantity of tea, even if you killed it by stripping off virtually every leaf!

Imperial Tea Court Teamaster Roy Fong, the source of our information on dan cong, has spent over 20 years in the tea business, much of it in China's tea-growing regions. As a result, he has deep, hands-on knowledge of every detail of the production of the tea we sell. When there's a question we can't answer, we take it all the way back to the source, often back to the farmer himself. That's why we say you can rely on the information we provide to guide your process of learning about the fascinating and diverse universe of tea.

By the way, we have some terrific dan cong this year, including the ultra-rare, ginger-scented Jiang Mu Xiang, intensely floral Bai Ye, and deliciously sweet, honey-like Huang Zhi Xiang. If you aren't well acquainted with this member of the oolong family you'll be rewarded by taking a closer look...and taste!


Anonymous said...

You're quite incorrect about the tea not coming from a single bush. This is a fact for high-quality DC, not an internet fallacy.

Roy Fong said...

This is exactly the type of deeply held misinformation that we felt obliged to correct with our blog post. I am sorry, but when is last time you actually made some tea? We're not talking about some guy who has a tree in his backyard and decides to make an ounce of tea, we're talking about "high quality" tea being produced by one single tree. The thought that this is done with any regularity is simply specious. One single tree does not produce enough fresh leaves to be produced into dry tea. For those of you who have never made tea before, you don't make tea with ALL the leaves on the bush, just the freshly sprouted leaves.

Just in case I dreamed the last 20 years of my life in tea, I called my friend Mr. Wang Kung Fu, whose family has been producing oolong tea for two generations. I asked if there's something I don't know. He laughed. I called my friend Mr. Chang of Yunnan Tea Import & Export Corp., who has been in this business for 30 years. Although I know from personal experience that even the large wild trees of Yunnan at best produce a kilo or two of freshly harvested leaves, I called him just to make sure there wasn't something I missed. He also laughed. One single BIG tree in Yunnan (the largest tea trees anywhere on earth, much bigger then the ones in Guangdong) does not produce enough to make a meaningful harvest, no matter what people try to tell you.

To cap it off, I called my friend Mr. Ye Yang of the China Tea Research Institute and asked if by chance he ever heard of some miracle that produces enough tea to sell from one single tree and if someone can do this somehow commercially or otherwise. He laughed as well! So Tea Obsession, unless you know something no one else who works with tea for a living knows, and you can prove that somehow someone regularly makes their tea one bush at a time, please stop misleading the tea-loving public.

Anonymous said...

Preposterous is the idea that Dan Cong leaf *cannot* come from a single bush (literally). I hold teas from single trees, with its own delights. This is as true for Puerh as it is for Dan Cong. But, in fairness to Roy, Dan Cong can also refer to tea leaf taken from the same variety rather than from the same bush. On the outlandish theory that Dan Cong all of a sudden refers to single trunk, I have nothing to add. Perhaps you ought to consult a botany book to see the difference between "tree" and "bush." Words mean what people agree they mean; language is as fluid as tea. Peace. Be well and happy. Let us drink tea.

Anonymous said...

It is well known that high-quality dan cong can indeed come from a single tree (or bush). However the vast majority does not and cannot due to the small amounts produced by a single tree -as you state.

However let's just enjoy our tea and not be too worried about this issue since it really isn't that important one way or the other if the tea itself is good.

Peace to you Roy and thanks for all of your information and love of tea.

Imen said...


It's well documented that true Dan Cong teas are made from one single tree individually. Plenty of books in Chinese have recorded such phenomenon. I presume you can read Chinese.


Roy Fong said...

Dear Imen,

I am sorry that this has become so heated, and yes I do read Chinese. The fact that we are talking about documentation in books should stop us from arguing this further. What works in theory doesn't work so well in practice. I am not saying that no one ever made tea from one bush, but to have enough for commercial sales is simply not practical. A picture of someone picking tea from a tree is a far cry from actually producing tea. Perhaps someday you and I can be on a tea farm together to witness the actual production of 5 kilos of finished tea from one bush...

Jason Witt said...

I'm a believer in the reality of single-bush teas. It's just like Da Hong Pao. There are fakes, including everything available here in the West. But to say that's why there's none of the real thing is just a joke. The authentic Big Red Robe harvests are worth a lot of money. No doubt about it. It's also similar with aged Pu-erh. Are there going to be attacks that no original Big Red Robe or truly old Pu-erh exists today? I think not. Likewise the idea that no single-bush Dan Cong is ever harvested and sold is the actual misinformation here. --Spirituality of Tea

Herb Master said...

I suspect the scale of commercialisation is a factor, those of us who buy single bush DCs from Imen and elsewhere have readily bought into the concept.

Knowing that with some vendors it is almost certainly true, and with other vendors it is almost certainly not true.

I think the phrase Dan Cong may have different meanings in different contexts and it would be nice if you and Imen could pass Olive Branches to each other and come up with the results of some joint (and jointly agreed)research that would be benificial to us all.

Heatwaves said...

You are no doubt an expert on tea, Roy. However, even experts must realize their own limitations and understand that the term "expert" is not synonymous with knowing EVERYTHING about every type and style of tea. I'm sorry to say but I interpreted your comments (and follow-up) as very pompous and my opinion of you has taken a bit of a dive.

In the immortal words of Shakespeare, "There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in you philosophy."


author said...

I think the China Tea Research people should know what they are talking about ... ? Would it not be in China's interest for the "single bush" to be something rare and valuable?

(I also think Roy has enough experience to know what he is talking about.)

gojiro said...

(I know I’m late for the thread, but a can’t resist adding my two cents)

Heatwaves, I think you are being unfair to Roy; he never implied he knew everything, quite the opposite when his knowledge was challenged he sought the opinions of others with more experience than himself. Virginia posted what she believed to be true and valuable information in a spirit of sharing and generosity; when this information was treated rather dismissively by an anonymous poster who gave a link to Iman’s poorly written and insulting blog entry (what is she even talking about regarding her experience of raking leaves –as if tea is harvested from fallen dead leaves, and why attack Roy personally instead of just stating her understanding of the facts?) he took the time to check his facts with three other expert sources.
I confess that I am still a bit confused about the whole matter ( I think this may be a case of people using the same name for different things –sometime by habit & tradition and sometimes to dupe unsuspecting buyers) but it has led me to some fascinating information and I look forward to finding out more facts. I admit that I feel a bit protective of Roy since his teashops first opened my eyes to the authentic world of tea when I was still just a teenage punk who only drank English and Russian teas with milk and sugar (sacrilege!). He offers a lot of information about tea and teaware and has helped many people in their journey of tea discovery.

Here’s a nice article from another of my favorite tea sellers, Winnie, owner of Teance. It’s not a definition of Dan Chong tea but a delightful first-hand account of buying this type of tea directly from a grower in Chao Zhou (Phoenix Mountain) :
(the site looks identical to Imans but I think they just chose the same blogger template, there’s no relationship there that I know of)

Whatever the definition I wholeheartedly recommend Imperial Tea Court’s ‘Huang Zhi Xiang’ and the ‘Phoenix Single Grove Honey Fragrance’ from Teance. even my friends who don’t share my enthusiasm for fine tea marveled at the depth, aroma, mouth feel and flavor of these two teas.

icetea8 said...

i also agree that this tea is made of many plants in the same plantation of the same subvariety, danchong is one of my favorites, their are many varietys of this tea "bush/tree". i have a tea term list of chinese/english ..