Phoenix Oolongs

When I hear charcoal fire roasted, I don’t think of light and floral. I think smoky. That certainly has to do with the Charcoal Fire Roasted Tung Ting, the first charcoal-fire-roasted tea that I ever tried, and it’s everything but light. But the Phoenix we had tonight are light, and they were roasted in a bamboo basket over charcoal fire for 20 hours. If you do it like Darius, steeping 2-3 grams them for 15-30 seconds instead of 12 grams for 2-3 minutes like the tea farmers, you get from this strong oolong not tar but a delicate, sugarcane-colored, fragrant liquid that is more akin to the greener oolongs like Baochong and Yellow Gold. But unlike Baochong, Yellow Gold, Tung Ting and most teas, the Phoenix oolongs come from tea trees, not tea bushes. Trees that grow 6-7 times a grown man’s height.

Darius asked everyone to name a few fragrances of Phoenix oolongs, and we heard almond, jasmine, orchid, honey, pomelo, osmanthus, but we didn’t exhaust the list. There are about 15 popular notes, about 22 major notes, and in this varietal, each tree pretty much has its own flavor profile. Why? We don’t know. Nobody really knows. But Darius has his own theory: the trees have grown for over 50 years, their roots dig deep into the same soil from which sprout flowers and fruit trees, the leaves breathe the same air as their flower and fruit tree neighbors, so they might just get a little influence from their neighbors.

Take the Connoisseur Phoenix for example. It is so named because it’s the very first crafted Phoenix tea, which is over 100 years old, this spring harvest smells deeper than any other Phoenixes, and it’s distinctively almond from fragrance to taste. There’s also Sky High Flower Fragrance Phoenix, so called because the fragrance is so robust it can reach the sky (or so believed). It smells vegetal yet nutty, like an artichoke heart. It has the light sweet and smooth taste of toasted rice without the slightest stringent trace. I’d recommend the Sky High any day.

On the simple end of the spectrum, there’s Phoenix Pomelo fragrance, which no doubt reminds us of pomelo pith. On the complex end, there’s Song Zhong Phoenix, so rare that Communist Chinese government officials take it for gifts. The original tea tree that was named by the last Emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty┬áhas died, and its 600-year-old child tree, whose leaves we drank at Teance today, is the only survivor of its type. The liquor tastes of pine nut, unburnt cigar, malt, clove, the black tip of a young banana, and anything aged, sweet, slightly smoky, somewhat resinous that you can think of. It’s that complex.

Then there’s this Phoenix that I really like. For a while I’ve realized but tried to deny that drinking tea accelerates me into a snob. I once threw away a full big cup of coconut chai from Peet’s because I couldn’t take its piercing chemically fake spicy sweetness. I contemplate stringing teabags up for decoration because they’re colorful. I deem a tea house unprofessional for serving tea with fewer tools and steps than I’m accustomed to at Teance. I’m terrible and mean when you put me next to a cup of tea. But at least I still hold on to one principle: the taste, not the rareness, decides whether I buy a tea. The usual Phoenix Honey at Teance has a gentle lychee fragrance to it that subsequently turns into something like a lemon leaf. It might get a bit stringent, but it’s fruity overall. It’s not that fancy, for Darius it goes great with Mexican food. But I like it. It leaves an impression on me, I dare say a stronger impression than the Sky High and the Song Zhong because its flavors are more consistent from one infusion to the next. And it tells me that a snob I may be, but I don’t judge the tea by its money’s worth.

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